The campaign for the regional elections has not inflamed great passions amongst the electorate. Even the main players seem merely to be going through the motions. What happens after the elections may prove more interesting than what went before.
What’s it all about?
The new Flemish government will most probably consist of at least three parties. In coalitions like this, parties can never push through their entire programme. Usually they are happy enough to get just two or three issues into the new coalition agreement. What these will be this time remains a mystery to most observers, as there are really no issues that stand out. In fact, most of the attention is focused on who will and who will not be part of the new coalition.
The discussion was fired up by Karel De Gucht, the federal foreign affairs minister and liberal heavyweight, when he said that his party would just as rather govern with the small nationalist N-VA as it would with its current partner, the socialist SP.A. The liberal free marketeers oppose the so-called traditional tripartite agreement (composed of Christian Democrats, liberals and socialists), for fear of being isolated in a leftist government. The socialists reacted to this by warning of a "cold" antisocial government should they be left out.
All of this is overshadowed by what is happening in French-speaking Belgium, where the liberal MR and scandal-ridden socialist PS are at each other's throats. It is expected that only one of them will be in the new governments of the Walloon and Brussels regions and the francophone community. Most probably, this will also have an impact on the federal government, in which MR and PS are both represented at the moment. The outcome of the regional elections may end up in a federal reshuffle, or even new elections.
Flemish politicians definitely keep this in mind when they are planning their new favorite coalition. Some people even dream of an unprecedented "Jamaican" coalition, with Christian Democrats, liberals and greens. This is no longer considered completely unrealistic, as it may reflect the new coalitions in French-speaking Belgium.
Apart from this "politicians' politics", no topic has emerged to dominate the campaign just yet. But these are some of the issues that have cropped up:
1. Taxes: The jobkorting is a tax deduction of €250 to €300 annually for people who have jobs. The idea behind this was that in times of labour shortage as many people as possible should be stimulated to work. Clearly, this was before the economic crisis hit Belgium. Now Open VLD wants to double the jobkorting, because in their eyes the middle classes deserve a break, while the Christian Democrat CD&V and socialist SP.A say that there is no budget to do this, especially not since the higher incomes benefit from it as well.
2. Institutional matters: Most politicians in Flanders agree that their level of government has not enough competences, but to parties like N-VA and CD&V this is part of what is at stake in these elections. Minister-president Kris Peeters (CD&V) has demanded that the new government agreement should contain the Flemish demands for state reform - while in fact the decision about this is the responsibility of the federal level. Five years ago, the agreement included a similar passage which led to the failed institutional talks of 2007 and 2008. CD&V now hopes for a new, more willing attitude from the French speakers.
3. Budget: In contrast to the federal level, Flanders has very few budget problems and is debt-free. This might change, though, as prime minister Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V) has warned that Flanders may have to make do with €1.5 to €2 million less, due to the economic crisis. This message has irked the Flemish minister for the budget Dirk Van Mechelen (Open VLD), who claims that he will watch over the budget no matter what. He reproaches Van Rompuy's government for its "immobility". SP.A heavyweight Frank Vandenbroucke, on the other hand, has replied that his "daring plan" for government investments will not cost all that much.
4. Welfare: Open VLD has attacked CD&V on its track record in welfare, saying that it has not managed to get rid of the waiting lists in provisions for the disabled, despite a significant rise in the designated budget. The liberals even want the new minister for welfare to be one of them, while traditionally this government post goes to a Christian Democrat. CD&V defends itself by pointing to the rising demands in this area.
5. Public transport: De Lijn, the Flemish public transport company, has an ambitious plan to double its tram and bus capacity by 2020. Too costly, say most parties. Only SP.A stands behind this proposal, as this is part of its "daring plan" of investments aimed at turning the economic tide. Flemish minister for mobility Kathleen Van Brempt (SP.A) has come under attack because the traffic jams are just as monstrous as before, despite huge investments in public transport.
6. Public works: Open VLD is the only party that speaks out clearly in favour of building the Lange Wapper viaduct, part of the Oosterweel link, which is to close the Antwerp ring road. The greens are against it because of the fine particles the traffic will produce. SP.A, who has defended the plan in the past, seems to be changing its mind on this, saying it awaits the results of more studies.
7. Economy: Minister-president Kris Peeters (CD&V) has been challenged by the greens on his Flanders in Action (VIA) plan, which aims to make Flanders a centre for logistics. The greens argue that this is not productive, as it leads to more traffic jams but few jobs.
8. The state of politics: Over the last couple of years, Belgian politics as a whole, has not been a pretty picture, with prolonged discussions at the federal level before a government was formed, failed talks on state reform, the resignation of prime minister Yves Leterme and minister for Justice Jo Vandeurzen, scandals surrounding the French speaking PS, and endless fighting between and within parties. This may result in a substantial number of the electorate opting for non-establishment vote. This will benefit the relatively new Lijst Dedecker in the first place, but possibly also N-VA and the greens, who have stayed out of most of this. Of the traditional parties, it is expected that SP.A will pay the highest price.
How to vote?
Voting takes place on Sunday 7 June between 8am and 3pm. Take your ID and the oproepingsbrief that you receive in the post if you registered on the Belgian electoral roll. Hand these to the official in your local polling station. He or she holds onto your ID card and gives you a plastic token. Go into the voting booth and select your party from the list on the screen. You can either vote for one party or select a candidate from the party list to improve their chances of being selected.